Here we have two seemingly unrelated buildings. One is from 1869 and the other from 1909. What could they possibly have in common? They certainly don’t share an architectural style. Nor a particular use. It’s not their builders, nor their occupants. The two buildings, four decades apart, are connected through one man, their architect: the Bunker-Busting Roarchitect of Philadelphia, Frank Furness. These structures represent two extremes in Furness’ career: 2106-08 Walnut is the earliest surviving Furness building in the city, while 222 Washington Square (aka 712 Locust) is the latest.
In 1867, veteran architect John Fraser, still fresh from designing the iconic Union League on Broad Street, formed a partnership with two plucky young architects: 26-year-old George W. Hewitt and 28-year-old Frank Furness, who had briefly apprenticed under him 10 years earlier. In their first year, the new firm designed the tower of the Church of the Holy Trinity (mostly Hewitt’s work), created designs for rustic Fairmount Park cottages, designed a mansion in Wilkes-Barre, worked on altering an old market shed into the Mercantile Library, and entered (and lost) competitions to design the new Masonic Temple, Reading Terminal, and Philadelphia Savings Fund Society.
The end of that first year culminated with a commission by the real estate speculation team of John Rice and Burgess Warren. This development concern had a large piece of land on the 2100 block of Walnut Street. The burgeoning neighborhood was going through a high-end building boom as mansion after mansion filled in what was previously a worker’s neighborhood serving nearby industry along the Schuylkill. Rice and Warren wanted a design for what they called a Double House–more or less a mansion duplex.
Upon first glance, the structure doesn’t seem all that unusual. The houses were built with the same general style as other luxury houses of the period. Fraser wasn’t exactly looking to break the mold here. However, upon further examination, the influence of Furness’ “violent mind” can be found in the sandstone facade. Small rosettes and other designs embellish otherwise staid doors and windows… a cryptic foreshadowing of the facades Furness would blow out less than a decade later.
After two years of construction, the 11,000 square foot duo-mansion was completed in 1869. In 1870, 2106 was sold to Walter Horstmann and 2108 went to Samuel Clarkson. The two men were colleagues, both working for the Horstmann Family’s textile company. From his house, Horstmann self-published a hobby puzzle magazine called The Brilliant and went on to commission Furness to design his son’s house on 13th Street in 1882 (demolished 1971). Clarkson lived in 2108 until his death in 1894. At the turn of the 20th Century, 2106 became home to Edward M. Paxson, Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, while 2108 was taken over by the Cooke Family, major players in Philadelphia High Society of the time.
In the 1910s and early 1920s, the occupants of both sides of the Double House were involved in the field of medicine. Multiple generations of the Rodman Family of surgeons lived in 2106 while a doctor’s office started running out of 2108. In 1922, 2108 was converted to offices based on the designs of H. Rex Stackhouse, including the street-level storefront that is still there today. 2106 stayed a single-family residence for a remarkably long time, still sporting well-to-do residents until the 1970s. Presently, both are cut up into apartments. 2106 still has its complete facade.
In the 40 years between the Rice/Warren Double House and the last surviving Furness, 222 Washington Square, the field of architecture went through manifest change. Fraser, Furness, and Hewitt became Furness and Hewitt after Fraser left to become a major government architect in 1871. The insanely embellished designs by Furness and Hewitt rocked the pair into starchitect status. Hewitt later went off on his own and Furness partnered with his chief draftsman, Allen Evans, to become Furness and Evans, busting out imaginative designs throughout the 1880s. At their height, they were rumored to complete a building every few days. By the start of the 1890s, Furness and his influence had changed the face of Philadelphia.
Despite that success, by the end of the 19th Century, Furness (and Philadelphia architecture in general) was old news, and his work, was seen as something far from the innovative, paradigm-shifting Modernist avant-garde that it was. Now his buildings had become hackneyed symbols of a decadent past. The Furness, Evans, and Company firm, now imbued with many young architects that would later make names for themselves, still plugged away at building designs, trying to follow the trends as the Colonial Revival-style work of Wilson Eyre became prominent. It was this influence that gives the final building with Frank Furness’ input, 222 Washington Square, its Colonial Revival look. While the Rice-Warren Double House foreshadowed Furness’ greatness, 222 Washington Square symbolizes Furness’ last fart into the architectural wind.
In 1908, the Philadelphia Suburban Electric and Gas Company commissioned Furness, Evans, and Company to create a multi-story office building that would be their headquarters and provide Philadelphia branch offices for the utility companies of some of Pennsylvania’s more rural counties. The building’s Colonial Revival details and use of materials seem completely un-Furnesslike. Its almost unfathomable that Frank Furness had anything to do with it.
Nonetheless, this building must have been somewhat personal to Furness–it was built on the site of the home of his own brother, Horace Howard Furness. H.H. purchased the house in 1870 and commissioned Furness and Hewitt to redesign the interior in 1871. By the time it was ready to be demolished, Walter Rogers Furness, the Dark Horse of Furness family members, had let the house fall to ruin. Walter was considered quite the failure, which in the Furness family meant he had only published one book and had spent most of his youth hunting and lounging.
Once built in 1909, the Philadelphia Suburban Electric and Gas Company asked for a matching addition just one year later. Besides utility companies, businesses related to utilities also rented space in the new building. As the utility companies moved out other offices, those businesses started fill up 222 Washington Square. In 1927, a small chemical company called Rohm and Haas was among them. By the end of the 1940s, Rohm and Haas was large enough to be listed in the New York Stock Exchange and filled the entire building. In 1951, Rohm and Haas commissioned the Borie, Smith, and Company to design interior alterations of the 222 Washington Square, turning it into a modern office space.
At the start of the 1960s, Rohm and Haas had grown so large that they expanded into the old row-mansions facing Washington Square that stood adjacent to their office building. They moved into their famous Pietro Belluschi-designed monsterpiece on Independence Mall in 1965, but retained ownership of 222 Washington Square, letting it sit empty for the next 15 years. In 1978, no doubt riding on the success of the residential conversion of the Musical Fund Hall nearby, the old Philadelphia Suburban Electric and Gas Building was in talks for residential conversion. Today, its called the “700 Locust Street Condos,” the first time in the building’s existence that it has been referred to by that address.
Frank Furness’ mark on Philadelphia is everlasting. We’re still talking about him, aren’t we? While those brick masterpieces we all know and love will always get attention, the Rice/Warren Double House and 222 Washington Square show the significance of Furness’ messianic rise and meteoric fall. Keep these structures in your thoughts during this week of Furnessic Festivities.
Frank Furness Week on the Hidden City Daily sponsored by:
The Athenaeum’s exhibit “Face and Form: The Art and Caricature of Frank Furness,” curated by Michael J. Lewis as part of the Athenaeum’s symposium, “Frank Furness: His City, His World,” opens November 30.
About the author
GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.